The relatively low cost and wide availability of today’s multi-track recording equipment has made production capabilities of the small project studio much greater than those of even the most extensive, specialized recording studio of the past. But many challenges face those that are new to the realm. In part one of this article, (July issue) some of the principles and applications of multi-track recording were discussed. This concluding part will continue the discussion of recording techniques, and also consider equipment and facility requirements of multi-track recording.
While this article is intended to provide a simple introduction to the subject, there are many resources available to the would-be engineer, musician, or church ministry who wants to get started in multi-track recording. Becoming knowledgeable and proficient in the field takes a considerable investment of time and energy. And with technology changing rapidly, it is difficult to stay abreast of the latest developments. But regardless of the equipment used, many of the techniques remain the same.
If you are new to recording, it may be a good idea to seek some formal training. There are many courses available through technical schools, community colleges, and universities. Also, practical experience can be gained by volunteering as an intern at a professional studio. You might study texts on the subject, read trade magazines, or get some equipment and give it a try. But whatever path you choose, the more knowledge and experience you have as you get more serious about recording projects, the better.
Probably the most important decisions made in the recording process are those made at the beginning. How the final product should sound and the ultimate use of the recording are the key elements. A clear vision of the end result will dictate the means by which the recording will be made: formats used, techniques applied, and personnel required.
Will this recording be of music, sound effects, narration, or something else? If it is music, is it to be CD quality, or is it for one-time use, perhaps as a background track for a special production? Is it audio for use with video? How many tracks will you need (will it be full orchestra, or a smaller ensemble)? An initial evaluation of these questions will quickly determine whether the right tools are immediately available, or if an investment in equipment and personnel is required.
Once the initial decisions are made and the process begins, basic recording practices come into play. For many recording engineers, microphone selection and placement during recording is where the “art” of the recording takes place, and each engineer prefers his or her own favorite techniques and equipment. Reading a trade magazine interview where five recording engineers talk about how they record a piano will most surely reveal five completely different choices of microphones, microphone locations and techniques.
The key is to work at microphone technique. If the wrong microphone is used, or if the right microphone is put in the wrong place, no amount of tweaking knobs will make it sound good. The moral of the story here is that while there are some very good guidelines given in various texts and taught in recording courses, the rule is that there is no rule. Whatever produces the desired result is the right technique. Experimentation with whatever you have available is a good way to find out what sounds good and what doesn’t.
Recording the basic tracks, known as “tracking,” provides the foundation for the recording. On a CD project, this can take anywhere from several hours to weeks or months. Tracking sessions generally record the rhythm instruments. Or, they might also record sequenced instruments.
When recording audio for video, all recording must be done live during the event. Whenever audio will be synchronized with anything else – as in the case of videotape – a time code track must also be recorded, so that later, the multi-track audio can be played back in perfect synchronization with the video. In addition to the time code track, a click track may be recorded. The click track is added to the headphone mix of the musicians during the recording session to help them maintain a consistent tempo.
After basic tracking sessions, additional recording sessions can be set up to record additional vocals, instrumentals, speech, sound effects, or even ambience as needed. Correcting musical mistakes by re-recording or “overdubbing” certain parts can improve the quality of the final product. Even on a live recorded video, if there are additions, replacements or other edits to be made to the audio track, they can be accomplished in post-production by overdubbing the individual tracks.
Once sufficient tracks have been recorded and all the pieces are in place, the mixing process begins. Mix sessions are where all the pieces are put together to create a final blend of the recorded tracks. Often mixdown will take place in a separate studio that is better equipped with outboard dynamics and effects processors or mix automation. Again, decisions regarding mixing requirements should be made before the recording process begins.
For a CD project, there is another critical, yet often neglected, step: mastering. In the mastering session, the final balance, equalization, dynamics processing and overall level matching are achieved in preparation for duplication. While many talented recording engineers will perform all recording tasks up to this point, the product should then be taken to a professional mastering engineer and dedicated facility for this crucial process.
There are many multi-track media formats on which recordings can be made. These include analog tape in various shapes and sizes, digital SVHS and HI-8 tape formats, computer hard disk, as well as two-track formats including direct-to-CD, mini-disk and DAT. As each format has its advantages and disadvantages, there are many issues to consider before taking the leap into multi-track recording and making major equipment purchases.
Probably the most important factor to consider first is compatibility. If you will be recording or mixing onto a format that needs to be used in a facility other than your own, it will need to be compatible with that other facility. Some of the more popular low-cost digital tape formats utilize SVHS or HI-8 videotapes. In general, most private and commercial studios utilize either one format or the other, but rarely both. If you are going to record in your own facility and mix in another, it makes sense to be format compatible.
Another factor to consider is how the recording data will be archived and backed up. This consideration is of particular importance for hard-disk-based recorders. Many of the newer fancy recorders have great features such as digital editing and random access, and incredible performance. But once the internal media are full of data, the data must be removed for archival in order to make the machine available for other projects. The archiving media and methods should be carefully considered prior to making the investment.
Other considerations for selecting a recording format include the number of tracks, the length of recording time available, the cost of the recording media, and the life expectancy of those media in an archival situation. The key is to gather as much information as possible from as many sources as you can before making a decision.
MULTI-TRACK RECORDING EQUIPMENT
Multi-track recording can take place using equipment ranging from a $500 “personal studio” to multi-million dollar professional recording facilities. However you choose to do it, the basic pieces of equipment needed for multi-track recording are the same. They include microphones, a multi-track recorder, a mixing console, and monitor speakers. Additional equipment that can dramatically enhance the process and improve the quality of the outcome include patchbays for signal routing, outboard dynamics processing units (compressors, expanders, gates), and effects processor units (reverb units, harmonizers, digital delays).
Keep in mind when selecting your equipment, its current application(s), and its projected future use, as well as your budget. As with anything else, the weakest link will determine the best quality that can be achieved. So it is important to look at the quality of the equipment prior to purchase. A high quality multi-track recorder routed through a noisy mixer will result in a noisy final product.
A slightly different equipment paradigm that exists today is the computer-based digital workstation. With software and hardware plug-ins, these systems include digital editing, dynamics and effects processing, and complete automated mixing capabilities. Again, the key when looking to get into multi-track recording is to research all the options and possibilities and make an informed decision.
It’s true that some popular CDs have been recorded in a spare bedroom and mixed on headphones. But more often than not, this type of setup is inadequate as a working environment. Does your spare bedroom have the acoustics found in a pro studio? Is there enough space in your room for microphones, a mixing console, a producer, a sound engineer, all the musicians needed for the tracks AND their instruments? Will your mom say OK??
Careful consideration should be given to the multi-track recording environment, particularly when considering new construction or a facility remodel. Room acoustics, sound isolation between the recording room and the control room, quiet heating and air conditioning systems are all issues that should be addressed very early in the design process. Facility design begins with looking at the size, shape and finish of each of the spaces and moves forward from there. If the facility you are going to be working in needs to produce a high-quality product, and the budget will support it, hiring a professional studio designer is a wise investment.
If more extensive facilities will be required, consideration should be given to the need for a drum or isolation booth, machine room, rehearsal space, tape and instrument storage, restrooms and a kitchen. In many of the church facilities currently being designed, a multifunction recording space is desired. This room is large enough to accommodate rehearsals and larger acoustic recording sessions, has a high enough ceiling to accommodate a lighting grid for smaller TV recording and productions, and can function as a green room before and between church services.
Finally, consideration should be given to technology advances coming in the near future. For many projects today, a finished product in stereo is not adequate, as multi-channel formats that include discrete center, sub-bass and surround channels are becoming the norm. While creating a new realm of artistic possibilities, projects done in these formats will require more capable equipment, place a greater demand on the facility and personnel, and require more careful planning. Also to be considered is the fact that some of the newer recording formats and media will soon become more widely accepted, while others die off. The best way to evaluate such developments and make informed decisions is to keep current with the trade literature.
If you are thinking about entering the world of multi-track recording, now is the time to begin planning and gathering information about the types of projects you will be recording and the equipment you will need to:
• Follow a hypothetical project through from start to finish, keeping in mind the recording process, determining what recording format you will use and what equipment you will need.
• Keep yourself informed about all the products available for recording today, and the latest developments in technology.
• Experiment with the equipment you have to gain experience and proficiency.
• Remember that careful thought, planning and research are the keys to successful multi-track recording.